William Melvin Kelley Biography


Like many young men, William Melvin Kelley's ideas about who he is and what America is all about have undergone major changes. For many years, he was, in his own words, an "assimilated student." He was educated at Fieldston, a private school in New York City, and, later, he attended Harvard University. In 1963, he published the well-known Esquire article "The Ivy League Negro." Of this type of black student, he said that the Ivy League Negro and, in general, most educated or upper-class Negroes, have an ambiguous attitude toward the uneducated, lower-class Negro; these Ivy League types are torn by a disdain and a deep love for the "diddy-bop" and the "jungle bunny" — that is, the lower-class black man and woman. "With one breath," Kelley said, "the Ivy League Negro will ridicule him [the lower-class black] for his lack of taste, the flashing and revealing clothes, and his 'dese, deys, dems, and doses,' and with his next breath, he will envy him for his apparent love of life, his woman's Africanesque or exotic beauty, and, believe it or not, his rough-and-ready sexuality." In short, Kelley was saying that in an unconscious effort to become completely integrated into American life, the Ivy League Negro adopts and accepts the stereotypes and prejudices of mainstream America — including color prejudice.

Since then, Kelley has changed. His tone is more fierce, and, as a result, he is regarded as one of the so-called militant black writers. He has remarked, "I think of myself, at least formerly, as one of the most integrated people that society produced. And because I was one of the most integrated, I was one of the most messed up, mentally, and one of the most brainwashed." He is very much concerned with the development of a separate literature for black people, a literature based on African traditions, including black music and folk culture.

In 1967, Kelley and his family left the United States for France, saying that he left not because he loved the French people so much, but because he wanted to learn to speak French. (Many African nations, it is important to note, are French speaking.) Kelley also said that he wanted to write books that black people could understand, books that "really express African experience. The older black writers have been talking mainly to the white man. Some of us, the younger ones, want very much to talk to black people."

As an example of what Kelley is attempting, his novel Dunfords Travels Everywheres, published in the fall of 1970, is valuable. The narrative uses a phonetically rendered version of black speech and the characters move between life and death, as well as across centuries. In addition to Dunfords, Kelley has published other novels — dem (1967), A Drop of Patience (1965), and A Different Drummer (1962) — and a collection of short stories, Dancers on the Shore. He is judged by many critics to be one of the most promising novelists. He has won the Dana Reed Literary Prize, the Rosenthal Foundation Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and has taught literature at the New School for Social Research and at Bard College.